My Dad: “The Terrorist”

What makes a terrorist2

(Liya Rechtman)– “Eez not bomb. Is radio. I have license.” I can hear the roll in his “r” and the slight guttural “ch” aftertaste of his “h.” The TSA officials quickly glance at each other, and the larger black woman with her hair pulled back into a tight bun presses into her hand-held to read out a series of numbers and letters that we cannot decode. “Sir, we’re going to need to take you aside for some additional questions,” she says loudly enough so my brother and I can hear, but looking only at him.

Welcome to the beginning of another family vacation. We are in hour four of security through international travel to visit my father’s family in Israel, and this incident will mark only the second time he has been officially segregated from the rest of the holiday season travelers and questioned individually, but I cannot count the other moments it almost happened. The looks from young (white) mothers and their children, the newly minted businessman on his first trip to see the “high tech” industry that Israel is so famous for, not to mention the over-anxious security, the flight attendants and baggage handlers all register in my periphery vision.

Sometimes, it will be my brother or I who gets taken away for extra security checks: they will briefly tear through our bags, rifle our clothes, and ask us where in Israel we’re going. Maybe, if we’re on the other side heading back, they will interrogate our Hebrew skills, ask us where our grandparents live and what synagogue we went to as kids. We know that this is merely a ploy, a gesture, as if to say ‘see, it’s not just you with your dark Arab skin that looks suspicious to us, your light-skinned children come up in our system too! It’s all fair game!’ As if that would somehow placate us, or make him feel less targeted.

My father always wears a suit when he travels, even when he’s going on a family trip. My mother, brother and I will sag into our oversized sweatpants and stained t-shirts, readjusting drawstrings and laces on our running shoes while my father keeps his tie knotted through a 12-hour flight. His theory is that if he looks like a professional, then he will be treated that way.

My father can quickly grow a thick, black beard. He never does, though. Instead, he keeps himself as close to clean-shaven as possible, even when traveling on long multi-day, layover-laden bargain adventures. One summer he decided not to shave for a week and when he tried to pick up my younger brother from camp, my brother didn’t recognize him. Locking all the screen doors into the cabin, he screamed: “You look like a terrorist!” My father went back to the hotel and shaved, before returning to camp to bring my brother home.

This is the world of post-9/11 security. This is the internalized xenophobia that our generation of Americans has come of age with. My father’s accent and small syntactical errors in spoken English make me wince. While, as a first generation American, I am proud of my bi-national heritage, I am often made to feel uncomfortable of my bi-national family.

I write all this, as you may have guessed, for two reasons, both related to the unfolding horrors of the Boston bombings and shootings.

First, for every bombing, every attack of terror or crazed shooter, my father seems to lose some (4th amendment) rights, some minutes of personal dignity in favor of the humiliation of being looked at like a criminal for his double-passport, his idiosyncratic English, and the subtle olive tones underneath his skin. Perhaps the Salon writer spoke too soon, analyzing the after-effects of the Boston bombings, when she turned out to be writing in the lull of an ongoing disaster. That being said, she went straight to the issue that many of us immediately see in the widely publicized chase for a suspect. Only hours after the bombing, with no suspect yet detained, two men were thrown off an airplane at Logan International Airport – not for making a suspicious move, not because of any threat that the airport received, not because their bags ticked through security – simply because they were speaking Arabic. Arabic has become reasonable doubt of terrorism.

My second thought on the bombings and shootings in Boston – contextualized maybe more by my Israeli-American identity than my Israeli-born, American-naturalized father – is how much these past few days have reminded me of living through the Second intifada. When my brother saw the smog in the air and the debris floating over the Hudson River from Lower Manhattan to Brooklyn on September 11th, 2001, he held on tight to my mother’s hand and asked if we were in a war. She responded easily “no, sweetie, we’re not in Israel anymore.”

Only days before 9/11, my family had been on our annual summer vacation in Israel, hibernating in the sweaty confines of the kibbutz where my grandparents lived because we were terrified of the near-daily bombings that pocketed that especially hot August in Israel. The Second Intifada was a period of small skirmishes and single-digit losses on each side of the Israeli-Palestinian divide every day: some in bus and café bombings, some in police gun-downs, respectively. No one left their homes, their towns, their cars unless absolutely necessary. Living felt risky. Kind of like waking up in Cambridge or Watertown would have felt this morning.

In the case of the end of times, my family would be the best-prepared people in the neighborhood. Our house is home to two generators, which are regularly tested and refilled, and a store of batteries, basic medical supplies, water and canned goods on each floor of the house that would be able to last a family of four at least a month with absolutely no help from the outside. My father once (much to my great embarrassment) told my thesis advisor that he was a survivalist. While he is not of the millennialist Christian theological school that believes in an imminent Armageddon, in many practical ways he is correct in this classification.

Ironically, the man I know most often detained on suspicion of terror knows best how to survive when the world seems to crashing in violence around us. Every time my father gets pulled aside by another ignorant, racist TSA agent I imagine what the agent would think if they knew that my family, sketched here as mere silhouettes against the background of apocalypse, would be the first responders in emergency. Criminalized and caricatured in an interlocking system of oppressions that he cannot control, I picture my father at the front of the crowd.

Photo cred: illustration by Shout